History has witnessed a shift in the dominant organizing structure of the economy from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to industrial.  The exploitative tendencies of people, including exploitation of both nature and other people, have expanded with these shifts to the point that humanity now faces a crisis of overexploitation.  There’s a real risk of undermining the life-support systems of the planet and making it unfit to support civilization.  Finding ourselves in this precarious position requires us to rethink our economic operating system and consider less exploitative ways to live, ways that focus on stewardship of nature and equitable sharing of resources.

Arrival of Cortez

The Arrival of Cortés, mural by Diego Rivera in Palacio Nacional de Mexico, Mexico City.

Exploitation is a major component of the global economy’s operating system.  The laws of physics confine all living creatures to some level of exploitation, but collectively people have taken it way too far.  There is a difference between inevitable forms of exploitation, in which organisms use their bodies and knowledge to obtain what they need, and overexploitation, in which an organism takes more than it needs and diminishes the capacity of the whole ecosystem upon which it depends.

Scholars have done plenty of research to offer evidence of humanity’s tendency toward overexploitation.  Ecological footprint analysis reveals that humanity is consuming resources 70% faster than the earth can handle.  Planetary boundaries analysis shows that we are disrupting multiple global processes critical to supporting life on the planet. 15,000 scientists have issued a strong warning:

“By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere.”

We are experiencing a biodiversity crisis, a climate crisis, a water crisis, and a soil crisis.  At the same time, some people are living large while others are struggling to get by.  In recent times, 82% of all of the growth in global wealth has accrued to the wealthiest 1%, while more than half the world’s population lives on incomes between $2 and $10 per day.

Such evidence and dire warnings from researchers suggest that we need to rethink our economic operating system.  Perhaps we should be aiming for the opposite of exploitation (although there’s no such word as “imploitation,” yet).  Humanity needs to make the transition to an economy that promotes care for both nature and people.  This transition begins with development of a set of economic institutions and rules that tamp down our most exploitative excesses.  But before considering some alternatives, it’s worth examining the nature of exploitation and people’s history with it in the economy.  Some understanding of these topics can help us avoid past mistakes, recognize ingrained habits, and highlight challenges we face.

The Nature of Exploitation

To some degree, all living creatures engage in exploitation.  Getting a drink, whether you’re a plant or an animal, means exploiting a source of water, such as a stream or an aquifer.  Venus flytraps exploit flies for a meal.  Flies, in turn, exploit nectar-producing flowers for their meals.  Flowering plants exploit nutrients in soil.  In general an organism uses its abilities and the living and nonliving resources it can access to ensure its survival and bolster its odds of reproducing.

Charles Hall, an ecologist who has built a career studying energy return on investment (EROI), offers a more rigorous analysis.  In his paper on energy flows in freshwater streams, he calculated that for every calorie a fish spends migrating in a stream, it gains an average of 25 calories.  With such a high EROI of 25:1, the fish makes an easy choice to move around the stream where it can take advantage of more abundant food or more favorable hydrology.  A migrating fish, therefore, exploits its ability to move and the available productivity in new territories to grow bigger, live longer, and produce more offspring.

Exploitation confers an advantage.  For example a predatory animal, such as a golden eagle, gains an advantage by exploiting its soaring ability to locate a productive hunting ground (picture a field of newborn lambs).  The eagle has an easy time meeting its caloric requirements while feasting on abundant lambs.  If the eagle is the first one to the lamb party, it can avoid fights with other predators competing for the same prey, and it is more likely to stockpile the energy needed to hatch and raise eaglets.  These principles apply to human systems as well.  Consider the workaholic coach of a professional soccer team—let’s call him Coach Crafty.  Coach Crafty spends every night studying videos of league games.  From his hours of studying, he’s able to pinpoint weaknesses in opposing teams.  As a result, he designs tactics and orchestrates plays that increase his team’s odds of winning each game.  This advantage creates a cascade of additional advantages.  As Coach Crafty’s team wins more and more of its games, it attracts more and more fans, which garners higher revenues from ticket and merchandise sales.  With more money, the team is able to pay higher salaries and attract better players, further increasing its odds of winning games and championships.  Over time, Coach Crafty becomes a regular candidate for coach of the year as his team achieves “sports dynasty” status.

Exploitation in human systems goes way beyond leisurely pursuits like soccer.  Throughout human history, people have used their clever brains to gain advantages for themselves by exploiting nature and other people.  For example, people have regularly uprooted themselves and their families to find a better or easier life, moving to uninhabited areas where there are plentiful, productive natural resources (timber, fertile soil, clean water, and good hunting) or economic opportunities (a city with lots of jobs).  In addition, by waging war, forcing people into labor, and taking advantage of difficult economic conditions, groups of people have appropriated resources from other people.

Collectively, people have gotten so good at exploiting natural resources that we’ve multiplied our numbers and spread around the globe to inhabit an incredible array of ecosystems, from snow-covered tundra to sunbaked deserts to rain-soaked forests.  We’ve expanded so much that that our own bodies and the bodies of our domesticated animals now make up an estimated 97% of the biomass of the earth’s terrestrial mammals.  By weight, then, people and the animals we raise are 35 times more prevalent than all the armadillos, anteaters, emus, elephants, wildebeests, wolverines, and other wild mammals.

People land biomass chart

Although competition between humans and other species and with one another is a part of our operating system, cooperation is also part of it.  In fact, cooperation is written into our cells.  Symbiosis is a form of cooperation that occurs when two different organisms live with and interact with each other, benefiting both of them.  Symbiosis between two kinds of bacteria led to the development of the cells that now make up all plants and animals, including humans.  Another symbiotic relationship – one that’s become the subject of intense research – is the link between humans and their gut microbiota.  We provide homes for vast populations of bacteria, and in return they help us with digestion, metabolism, protection against pathogens, and other functions.

Cooperation exists alongside exploitation in all manner of human activities.  Parents cooperate to raise children.  The players on Coach Crafty’s team cooperate to win soccer games (in other words, we sometimes cooperate in order to compete more effectively).  Orchestra members cooperate to play symphonies.  And workers cooperate to run all kinds of enterprises, such as businesses, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and, yes, cooperatives.

Nature and culture have endowed humanity with the ability to act both exploitatively and cooperatively, but there’s no built-in or agreed-upon rules for choosing one or the other.  And, sometimes, the two paths aren’t mutually exclusive. In a palm oil business, for example, employees may cooperate with one another to exploit rainforest habitat for the profits obtained by growing and selling palm fruits.  Despite the potential for favoring cooperation, a brief history of economic exploitation reveals that we’ve been growing more exploitative over time (ironically, we’ve been growing more cooperative as well, with cooperation enabling us to exploit and compete more thoroughly).  If humanity can be thought of as a karate student when it comes to exploitation of each other and nature, we were a white belt in hunter-gatherer times.  We progressed through other belt colors during agrarian times, and we’ve earned a black belt in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Exploitation in Hunter/Gatherer Economies

Anthropologists have generated a rich body of research on the lives of hunter-gatherer societies. This research reveals that a variety of peoples, such as the Aborigines of Australia and the !Kung and Hadza of eastern Africa, established lifestyles that were environmentally sustainable and socially just.  They had to learn some lessons and make adjustments to achieve such lifestyles (for example, when the Aborigines arrived in Australia, they quickly hunted most of the island’s megafauna to extinction), but they were able to live for tens of thousands of years without undermining the ecosystems that supported them.

Kalahari hunter

Kalahari hunter. Photo credit: Papa Bravo/Shutterstock.com 

To be clear, hunter-gatherers exploit resources in their environments.  You can’t hunt without finding something to hunt; you can’t gather without opening nature’s cupboard.  Bands of hunter-gatherers have sometimes exploited other bands through raids, kidnapping, and other violent acts.  And it’s entirely possible that hunter-gatherers would have acted more exploitatively if they had the technical means to do so. But anthropologists and historians have documented how tribes established elaborate rules for sharing, shunned acquisitiveness, worked together to take care of communal needs, enjoyed ample leisure time, and shared leadership responsibilities.

Exploitation of People and Lands in Agrarian Economies

As groups of people began to shift from hunting and gathering to farming and ranching as the dominant economic organizing structure, they intensified their exploitation of available resources.  People learned techniques to domesticate plants and animals, and they grew crops for direct consumption and trade and raised animals for meat and to provide transportation and field work.  The surplus calories generated through this new economic foundation gave subsets of people the breathing room to pursue activities outside of food production, homemaking, and child rearing.  With the ability to direct their labor to ever more specialized tasks, new ideas and technologies developed that allowed exploitative practices to spread, even across oceans as in the case of Maori peoples settling Pacific islands or European peoples colonizing the Americas.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that people sought to exploit lands to their advantage, whether for good soils and supplies of water or for timber or minerals, but the adoption of practices to exploit people may be more surprising given the egalitarian roots of our hunter-gatherer past.

One category of people-on-people exploitation is direct displacement, which occurs when one group invades another group’s homeland and seizes control of territory and resources for themselves.  In the podcast Seeing White, communications professor Chenjerai Kumanyika describes this category when he says about Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas that the very mission was brutal exploitation of the people and resources.  Another category consists of exploitation of people through forced labor as has happened in feudal and slavery-based economies.  Agriculture requires extensive work to till fields, plant seeds, tend animals, and harvest and transport crops.  When human bodies were the most readily available source of this work, some people coerced others into doing it.

Human ingenuity can be a force for positive – finding ways to ease suffering or to improve life, but it can also be a force for exploitation and rationalization of immoral behavior.  Part 2 of the Seeing White podcast describes the invention of racial inferiority.  In Portugal in 1453, Gomes de Zurara wrote what turned out to be a very popular chronicle of Prince Henry the Navigator’s voyage a decade earlier to seize captives from sub-Saharan Africa (this was the first time Europeans had sailed there directly to capture slaves instead of buying them from north African middlemen).  Zurara claimed that Henry’s main motive was to bring Africans to Christianity, and to improve their “beastly” lives.  He portrayed them as inferior to make Henry look good.  The upshot: slave traders and their propagandists codified the racist notion of “blackness” to justify the capture and subjugation of people.  What a corrupt feat of mental gymnastics on the part of enslavers to secure cheap and reliable labor!

African slaves in America

African Americans slaves using the First cotton-gin, 1790-1800, drawn by William L. Sheppard. Illustration in Harper’s weekly. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Europeans who had become adept at rationalizing slavery and racism exported their “skills” to the new world to pave the way for increased exploitation of slaves.  Slave labor in the southern United States became the foundation of economic expansion not only in the South, but also in the North and in England and other parts of Europe.  According to history professor Edward Baptist:

“In the span of a single lifetime after the 1780s, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out plantations to a subcontinental empire.  Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and the West to vast territories that were seized—also by force—from their Native American inhabitants.

Their practices made the southern states the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time.  Manufactures of clothing and other products made from artificially cheap cotton also benefited.  The returns from cotton powered the modernization of the whole American economy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the level of exploitation this way: “[The enslaved] were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”  And he elaborates, “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Throughout the history of agrarian civilization, classes of people perpetrated unspeakable violence upon other classes in the attempt to fulfill economic goals.  Some practices began to collapse under the weight of their own immorality, but the rise of fossil fuels and the emergence of the industrial revolution changed the nature of economic exploitation again.

Energy slaves

Illustration by Hugh D’Andrade for Post Carbon Institute

When humanity discovered and unlocked the seemingly supernatural energy content of fossil fuels, we gained an unprecedented ability to do work.  Each North American alive today has the equivalent of 89 virtual humans working for him or her around the clock.  These virtual humans have been called “energy slaves”, and they power our cars, trucks, planes, buildings, factories, farms, and all the trappings of modern living.

Exponential Exploitation in Industrial Economies

This access to fossil fuel energy has allowed us to be less directly exploitative of people.  In fact, evidence suggests that slavery was abolished in part when fossil-fueled technologies became viable alternatives to human labor.  Abolishment of slavery represents a monumental moral improvement, but the ramp-up of fossil fuel use also has prompted a monumental increase in exploitation of the natural world.  At the same time, exploitation of people, though not so blatant as slavery, remains part of the industrial economy.  Forced labor exists to this day – an estimated 25 million people globally – and many people have little to no choice but to work in difficult conditions for scant wages, and those with financial power are able to exploit those without.

The years after the Industrial Revolution could be considered the exponential age – exponentially increasing human population, exponentially increasing consumption, exponentially growing economies.  We have become increasingly able to bend the natural world to our will, cultivating more acres, harvesting more timber, expanding our cities, trading goods and services farther and faster – in short, turning more and more nature into humans and our stuff.

All of this exploitation has put civilization and the global ecosystem in danger.  Too many people are consuming too many resources to the point that we are depleting the diversity of life on the planet and risking runaway global warming.  Most economists and politicians call for a continuation of current institutions and practices.  That is, maintain an ultra-competitive, globalized, capitalist, growing economy, but with tweaks and a hope that technological advancements will save the day.  If our history of exploitation has led us to the possibility of making our planet uninhabitable, then we desperately need to identify and develop socioeconomic systems that bolster our tendencies toward sharing with each other and stewardship of nature.

The Way of Sharing and Stewardship in Post-Industrial Economies

With 7.6 billion people on the planet (and climbing) and continuing aspirations for growth and U.S.-style consumerism, it’s not going to be easy to scale back consumption to sustainable levels.  It’s a seismic shift to go from the “econo-me” to the “econo-we” – from a goal of perfect competition to a goal of perfect cooperation.  Herman Daly and other ecological economists have proposed establishment of a steady-state economy, which is a non-growing economy based on a sustainable population size, sustainable per capita consumption, fair distribution of wealth and income, and efficient allocation of resources.  Development of a steady-state economy requires different institutions and policies to limit the flow of materials and energy to sustainable levels, stabilize population through compassionate and non-coercive means, distribute wealth and income equitably, reform monetary and financial systems for stability, change the way we measure progress in the economy, secure meaningful jobs and full employment, and reconfigure the way businesses create value.  To install these kinds of economic institutions that could pull us back from the cliff edge, humanity has to recognize some truths, stop the harm, and take action to organize life differently.

Recognizing Truths

Despite our cleverness, we humans can be incredibly thickheaded.  It took us scores of generations to recognize the immorality of slavery, and we are still struggling to this day to combat racism and undo the injustices of slavery.  For the longest time, proponents of slavery failed to understand or admit the truth and hypocritically supported slavery alongside values like freedom and equality.  Something similar (albeit not so obviously reprehensible from a moral standpoint) is happening now with climate denial, especially in the United States, and with devotion to economic growth around the world.  For example, Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), recently said in a speech,

“…many countries are facing many social and economic challenges.  At the OECD, we believe that it is possible to tackle climate change and grow the economy.  Our bottom line is that green and growth are compatible.  We can and must have them together.”

Such dedication to growth, which entails increasing population or per capita consumption or both, locks in patterns of exploitation.

Organizations like the OECD, governmental bodies, and people around the world need to become adept at recognizing exploitative laws, policies, practices, and views.  The truth is that continuous growth requires exploitation.  So many more options become available to meet climate goals, biodiversity goals, and other goals for sustainability once we remove increasing production and consumption as a societal imperative.  When people realize how exploitative our economic system is, we can begin to take action to stop the harm.

Stopping the Harm

The first rule of medicine is “Do no harm.”  We would be wise to apply this rule to jumpstart the transition to a stewardship economy.  If we can’t eliminate harm, we can at least strive to minimize harm, or keep it confined to a bounded number and size of locations.  Three critical ways to minimize harm are (1) identify and conserve what’s left of healthy, functioning ecosystems; (2) quit burning fossil fuels by tapering off their usage while attending to disruptions in the economy and fairness among affected people; and (3) eliminate wide gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

Each of these three ways of minimizing harm tamps down our exploitative tendencies.  In the case of conserving what’s left of intact ecosystems, people have to keep large areas out of economic production, meaning an explicit agreement not to exploit natural resources from those areas.  Ideally over time, we would add representative samples of all ecosystem types to the conservation estate, rather than just conserving areas, such as mountains and deserts, that require us to sacrifice little in agreeing not to exploit them.

In the case of tapering off fossil fuel usage, it is unlikely that alternative energy sources, especially if we rely mostly on renewable ones, will enable us to do the same amount of work we do now.  Therefore, the end of the fossil fuel age involves some degree of powering down.  With less power at our fingertips, we will have less opportunity to alter landscapes, build cities, transport goods and services, or take other exploitative economic steps.

In the case of eliminating inequality, we will be smothering the tendency for groups of people to exploit other groups by dissolving class structures in society.  Doing so changes the economic focus from accumulation of material wealth to wellbeing.  Based on epidemiological evidence, more equal societies perform better on a variety of health and social measures.  For example, people enjoy higher life expectancy, fewer citizens develop drug addictions, people are less victimized by violence, teenage birth rates are lower, the rate of obesity declines, mental illness is less common, and many fewer people end up in prison.

Organizing the Economy and Life Differently

There’s an important difference between exploitation in nonhuman ecosystems and exploitation that occurs in human political and economic systems.  Exploitation entails taking, but in natural ecosystems, there’s a giving that goes along with it.  Give-and-take in nature produces cycles that can be sustained over very long periods of time.  Consider what happens after a major fire burns through a forest.  The first species to establish themselves take advantage of the disturbance conditions.  Selected plants exploit the burned landscape to thrive and propagate, but in doing so, they deliver nutrients to the soil and set up conditions that support another wave of species.

After forest fire

Forest fire new growth. Photo credit: mothy20/iStockPhoto

This “giving back” fans the process of succession, in which species assemblages change over time, and the living parts of an ecosystem affect the non-living.  After enough time, conditions become ripe for the larger trees of a mature forest to reestablish themselves, and the fire-adapted ecosystem is ready for another long-term cycle.  Giving and cycling don’t necessarily happen like this in social systems.  We are taking and in many instances, failing to give back.

This failing to give back has been built into capitalism – hence, the exploitation inherent in our economic operating system.  Jason Hickel and Martin Kirk, referring to capitalism, recently wrote:

“[People] realize—either consciously or at some gut level—that there’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on.”

Capitalism boosters often react to this critique with the notion that we either keep the capitalist engine running or we go back to living in caves (sometimes they offer another, equally undesirable choice of returning to Soviet-style communism).  No one is proposing that we abandon capitalism to return to hunting and gathering as the basis of the global economy.  But we can take some cues from our past about how to operate a sustainable and just economy.  Ingrid Elísabet Feeney, freshly returned from an international conference on ecosocialism, reported that the conference adopted the “small farm as the base unit for an emergent, future society founded upon the recovery of historical memory, territorial organization by bio-region, the rights of Mother Earth, the decolonization of the mind, and the reconfiguration of indigenous nations.”  That description offers a foundation for an economy that draws upon the wisdom of our past and moderates our exploitative tendencies.  Many possibilities like this ecosocialist example exist for reorganizing the economy, but to chart a sustainable and just way forward, there’s one thing we really need to exploit: our capacity for giving back, both to nature and to each other.